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The Evolution of Theology: God Changes (June 15, 2018)

A few weeks ago, I wrote a couple of columns about the evolution of theology. The main point is that our way of speaking about God necessarily changes as our knowledge in other areas grows, and as the situation of our life together on earth changes.

This week, I thought of another example. One of the points I made is that one of the deep existential questions we have been asking in the last 100 years is about where we can find meaning and purpose in our lives. People didn’t ask that question in previous centuries.

Historians generally note that World War 1 changed everything for human beings. That war introduced massive numbers of casualties in war. Such huge numbers of death was largely unknown in previous wars. Before World War 1, battles were largely fought face–to–face, one army facing another across a field.

But World War 1 introduced trench warfare and chemical warfare. Weapons became more sophisticated so that you could kill more people from greater distances away. Civilian and military casualties are estimated at 37 million. The horror was so great that it was supposed to be the war to end all wars.

And then came World War 2. Estimates of total deaths range from 50 million to 80 million. Now, death could be rained from the armadas of planes in the air. Ships could be bombed from underneath the seas. Concentrations camps killed millions of people. The first nuclear bomb rained death and destruction for over a generation on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

It led to a whole new way of thinking about life. It led to a whole new set of questions about whether life means anything or not. It was a monumental shift in human experience.

Not surprisingly, it led to new ways of envisioning God.

Near the end of World War 2, a small scrap of paper was smuggled out of the Nazi prison cell where Dietrich Bonhoeffer was held. A church leader and theologian, Bonhoeffer agreed to become part of the plot to assassinate Hitler. The plot failed, he was jailed, and a few weeks later, he was executed. That small scrap of paper had these words scratched on them: “Only the suffering God can help.”

At that moment, sitting in his prison cell, facing his execution, seeing his beloved country torn apart by war and his dear church following the Führer rather than walking in the way of Jesus, Bonhoeffer found comfort in his faith in a God who suffers.

That seems a remarkable change from earlier times, when people generally believed that God was unchanging. The technical word for that is “impassibility” (from the Latin words meaning “not” and “able to suffer or experience emotion”). The old theology held that since God was perfect and unchanging, God was unable to suffer or to respond to pain.

Bonhoeffer, however, tapped into another part of the Biblical story, which conceives of a God who suffers with God’s people. The Exodus story begins with God appearing to Moses in a burning bush, where God says, “I know the sufferings of my people …” and therefore I will deliver my people.

Again, the prophet Isaiah describes a God who will “cry out like a woman in labour” and “gasp and pant” (Isaiah 42). This is not an impassible God. This is a God who is present with all who suffer, all who are oppressed, all who seek comfort in the midst of pain and suffering. It’s a return to a different theological emphasis which makes sense in the light of the atrocities of the first half of the 20th century.

This theological understanding powerfully eloquent language in the novel “Night” by Elie Wiesel, in which he recounts his own nightmare as a Holocaust survivor. An episode in the novel describes a hanging. Three gallows were erected, one of them intended for a child. Someone asks, “Where is merciful God? Where is He?”

Wiesel describes the hanging, and ends his heart–breaking description, “Behind me, I heard the same man asking: “For God’s sake, where is God?” And from within me, I heard a voice answer: “Where is He? This is where – hanging here from this gallows…”

It strikes me that in the light of the tragedies of the 20th century — the trenches of World War 1, the Holocaust, the Gulag, the killing fields — it was no longer possible to worship a God who was untouched by human suffering.

This new exploration becomes a powerful witness to a God who is passible, a God who is with God’s people in our search for meaning and purpose in life. It gives a whole new context for helping us understand Emmanuel, which means “God with us”. As we explore this new world–view, we seek to understand the nature of God in terms of suffering love.

Rev. Yme Woensdregt